London’s newest train line bears warning for Sydney, Melbourne metros

The line’s eastern, western and central parts will not be fully joined up when it opens. But when it is all hooked up in the British autumn, passengers will be able to zip from Heathrow Airport to the Docklands financial district in just 17 minutes, down from at least an hour on public transport now.

Work began in 2009 and was supposed to finish in 2018. But what Mr Wild called the “huge complexity” of its signalling system threw the project’s timetable into disarray, and the cost ended up spiralling from £14.8 billion to about £19 billion.

At the time, this sparked debate as to whether Britain would ever be capable of producing major infrastructure projects on time and on budget.

The line is 118 kilometres long, but won’t be fully joined up for another few months. 

But Mr Wild said the challenge was all in the cutting-edge digital and signalling aspects of the project.

He said the tunnelling and construction had been completed largely on schedule, despite having to navigate existing Tube lines, skyscraper foundations and London’s plethora of archaeology – including the discovery of 3000 bodies near Liverpool Street station, in the eerily monikered Bedlam Burial Grounds.

“The civil engineering went very well. Fundamentally what went wrong was dealing with the immense digital complexity,” he told a press briefing.

The line’s bespoke signalling had to interact with several existing systems, and it had to negotiate both surface and tunnel travel, with trains swapping between the systems while travelling at high speed.

‘Brain drain’ to Australia

Mr Wild, who worked at Public Transport Victoria as a project director and then CEO from 2012 to 2015, said the Melbourne project would likely be grappling with similar challenges.

Now that Crossrail was finished, he said, many of its experts were likely to end up working on the Australian projects as they reached that same critical juncture.

“A lot of my team are going to work in Melbourne and Sydney. There’s a brain drain going on,” he said.

He had hoped to keep the team together to start work on Crossrail 2, a new line connecting the capital’s north-east and south-west, but that one has not yet got off the drawing board.

The Queen makes a rare public foray to inaugurate the new London Tube line named in her honour. AP

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is focusing its infrastructure efforts outside London, with a so-called “levelling up” agenda that focuses on disadvantaged and under-serviced parts of northern England.

Voters in these areas defected en masse from Labour to Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party at the December 2019 election.

Alexander Jan – who chairs a local business lobby group in the central London district that hosts what will be the Elizabeth Line’s busiest station, Farringdon – said it was difficult to get new projects off the ground in the capital.

He said governance of public transport was more centralised at national level in England, whereas in the US and Australia it was a state-level responsibility. Also, the network operator Transport for London was unusually dependent on fare revenue, rather than public subsidy.

TfL’s fare revenue plummeted during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and the organisation has been in protracted talks with Mr Johnson’s government over a bailout and a long-term funding plan.

But all that will be forgotten, at least briefly, as trainspotters queue up on Tuesday morning for their first ride on the sleek new trains. Even the ailing Queen was tempted out for a rare public appearance, to see the line named in her honour.

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